Boeing [BA] plans to start delivering the upgraded Block III F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets by the end of 2020 and plans to have finished delivering a full squadron of Block III aircraft to each U.S. aircraft carrier air wing by 2024.

The Block III production line will start by with the last six planes in the Flight 18 order of Super Hornets in late 2020 and expects to produce all 116 planes anticipated in the Navy’s FY ’19 Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), Boeing F/A-18 Vice President Dan Gillian told reporters at the company’s Arlington office on Wednesday.

Artist's impression of an F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Block III (top) alongside a Block II (bottom). (Image: Boeing.)
Artist’s impression of an F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Block III (top) alongside a Block II (bottom). (Image: Boeing.)

Boeing expects to have completed delivering the second squadron of Block III aircraft to each carrier air wing by 2027 while the other two squadrons on each carrier are expected to be made of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35C. The company plans to build Flight III aircraft through at least 2025.

The company has already begun working on upgrading the first Block II Super Hornets to a Block III configuration. The first step is extending the flight hours of Block II aircraft from 6,000 to 9,000 before fully upgrading them to Flight III models in the Service Life Modification (SLM) program. Two weeks ago Boeing inducted the first Flight II plane into its St. Louis facility to upgrade its flight hours. The second plane will be inducted next month, Gillian said.

Last month Gillian told reporters in a tour of the F/A-18 production line in St. Louis that some of the first Block II Super Hornets will get flying hour upgrades in two stages: first to 7,500 hours, then fully to 9,000 hours.

In March the Navy said it plans to award Boeing the first SLM contract in FY ’19. The plan is to induct up to 15 SLM aircraft in FY ‘19 and up to 30 more in FY ’20 (

Defense Daily, March 29).

According to the company’s skyline for deliveries, Boeing expects to deliver completed SLM F/A-18s from calendar year 2018 through 2025.

The company plans to mostly deliver international F/A-18 models to Kuwait in calendar year 2020. Last month the Navy awarded Boeing a $1.2 billion contract for long-lead engineering to start building and delivering 28 Super Hornets to Kuwait in a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) order (Defense Daily, April 2). Boeing has been making Super Hornets at a rate of two per month for the last few years and plans to continue at that rate with current expected orders.

“I’m optimistic that we will continue to extend the production line and increase rate to meet that collective international and domestic demand. So we’re eyeing toward the future in production capacity increases, but are currently planning at a rate of two per month,” Gillian said.

The Block III aircraft will feature several upgrades: conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) to add 100-120 nautical miles of range, 9,000 flight hour life, stealth signature improvements of about 10 percent, a new 10×19 inch advanced cockpit systems (ACS) display, Rockwell Collins [COL] Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) as a big data pipe network, Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) onboard computer, the Infrared Search and Track (IRST) Block II sensor as a center pod below the airframe, and the extended 9,000 hour flight life.

Gillian said the Block II is very different from where Boeing started when it thought about updating the Super Hornet in 2013. They developed the Advanced Super Hornet, flying a stealthier version on test ranges. However, “as we matured our thinking we started to think less about the platform and what could we do to a platform and started thinking at that carrier air wing level and what does that carrier air wing need.”

He said Boeing and the Navy worked out these Block III upgrades as evolutionary measures that combined ass a “revolutionary capability for the warfighter.”

The fuel tanks will be fitted on the aircraft’s “shoulders” to replace in-board drop tanks. Gillian noted the CFTs hold less gas than the current tanks but the removal of external tank drag makes up for that in both speed and efficiency. He said Boeing’s partner on CFTs is Northrop Grumman [NOC]. The Navy awarded Boeing a $220 million contract to design, develop, test, and integrate the CFTs last February (Defense Daily, Feb. 14).

Gillian said 6,000 hours of flying life should last about 20 years conventionally, but because of higher tempo in recent years the first Block II aircraft inducted for upgrades only lasted 14 years.

The Navy’s F/A-18 Program Manager Capt. David Kindley told reporters the general rule of thumb is each Super Hornet flies about 300-400 flight hours per year, but that swings depending on how the Navy uses each jet.

The IRST21 sensor system is mounted on the nose of the F/A-18E/F’s centerline fuel tank. (Image: Lockheed Martin)
The IRST21 sensor system is mounted on the nose of the F/A-18E/F’s centerline fuel tank. (Image: Lockheed Martin)

The ACP consists of a new 10×19 inch flatpanel touch-enabled display that “changes user interface completely,” Gillian said. Although it will be the “most modern display in any tactical aircraft in the world” when it is delivered, initially it will replace the current non-touch H-12 interface until the Navy can train its personnel on its new capabilities. Kindley said the next software upgrade, H-14, that will more fully use the display’s capabilities, will be delivered in 2019 “hopefully.”

Boeing won several awards for upgraded IRST work in 2017, winning $89 million last May and $100 million last October (Defense Daily, May 26, 2017 and Oct. 19, 2017). IRST Block 2 was a program of record before the Block III was approved, but its full capabilities will be “unpocked” in the new processor and display, Gillian said. IRST is a passive infrared sensor that has ranges greater than radar and can see hot spots.

Infrared sensors have to contend with weather and other atmospheric interference more than radar, but Bob Kornegay, Capture Team Leader in F/A-18E/F and EA-18G programs, said they used a cluttered and degraded environment in testing.

The IRST combined with the DTP-N, TTNT, and ACS give pilots what Boeing calls a new Common Tactical Picture (CTP). Whereas one Super Hornet with an IRST can see only a line of bearing on possible targets, two aircraft can communicate and share data through the DTP-N and TTNT to compute weapons-quality tracking with range and location of targets, akin to having two eyes creating depth perception. The ACS displays the information and new software can communicate target information with more icons and colors.

Kornegay highlighted the IRST here can be useful against next-generation stealthy opponents because low radar cross section features do not affect infrared signatures.

The new networked computer systems allow the aircraft to share this information among Super Hornets and E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.

Kindley noted the TTNT has an interoperability construct with the Navy’s Link 16 encrypted nodeless tactical digital data link network. Link 16 can transmit and receive messages, allowing aircraft to communicate sensor data. He added the F-35s does not have TTNT but does has Link 16, so the two aircraft can pass weapons quality tracks to each other.